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Ah, New Hampshire – home of the flinty independent voter. The “Live free or die” state is one of the few that allows registered “indies” to vote in either the GOP or Democratic presidential primary. But, come next Tuesday, what rational indie would waste a vote in the Democratic primary, a yawner with just President Obama on the ballot, when you could mix things up in the Republican primary?

Forty percent of New Hampshire’s registered voters are independent. In a Suffolk University tracking poll, half of primary voters ages 55-74 identify themselves as independents.

Mitt Romney was governor of neighboring Massachusetts and has a vacation home in the Granite State, so things look good for him. He has a commanding lead, 41 percent to 18 percent, over his nearest rival, Rep. Ron Paul. The other candidates are in single digits. Among voters over age 55, Romney’s lead stretches to a 3-to-1 advantage.

But among independents, Romney’s lead narrows – 37 percent like Romney, 24 percent Paul and 10 percent for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Ron Paul autographs a campaign poster. Gage Skidmore

Paul and Huntsman “provide a message that cuts against the grain of the Republican Party,” says Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Another survey, by Time/CNN, digs deeper. Among older voters, six in 10 say Romney has the best chance of beating Obama in November. For them, leadership skills trump his stands on issues, 58 percent to 31 percent. An astonishing 95 percent of 50+ voters say the economy is important or extremely important to them, even though the state’s unemployment rate, 5.2 percent, is far lower than the national average of 8.5 percent.

Perhaps the economy means financial security in New Hampshire, where 99 percent of those over 65 are enrolled in Medicare and 95 percent receive Social Security.  Nine in 10 New Hampshire voters, according to an AARP-commissioned survey of likely primary voters, say the solvency of the two programs is essential to their security in retirement.

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